The Volokh Conspiracy

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So, what if? / Picking a period



So, what if?

It's always good to start with that question. There's a good book about asking that question (What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter) that's worth a look. In this instance, though, the question is, what if I were to write something set in an historical period? Where to start? Writers don't want to write the same old thing anymore than readers want to read the same old thing, so the problem is how to write historical fiction in a new way.

I've taken two different approaches and they both started with the question, what if? The first question was what if there was a Viking inside Lindisfarne monastery when it was raided by Vikings in 796? The second question was what if there was an atheist in an age when everyone believed in God?

Those two "what if?" questions were the first dominos in long lines of questions that had to be answered before I knew that the stories were. Who were those men? How did the Viking get to Lindisfarne? How did the atheist lose his faith?

Picking a Period

The thing that drives everything else is the "when" of historical fiction. And the thing that drives the when is what you're interested in. So if you Google "Historical Fiction Definition" (which is what we do, isn't it?) you get the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry, which is pretty broad but ballpark accurate: "Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the action takes place in the past." Like most things in Wikipedia, this is okay as far as it goes.

Readers are drawn to historical fiction because they're interested in the setting, and it's likely they already know something about it. This is an additional burden on the writer in terms of what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief." This is the inclination on the part of readers to want to participate in the creation of the fiction by agreeing to accept what you tell them. The writer helps the reader to accept the fictional world by establishing consistent rules and not to violating the integrity of the fictional world.

To write realistically about an historical time and place you've got to know the period intimately. My advice is to pick a time you really like because you're going to immerse yourself in it. You're going to become that person at parties that people avoid unless they want to know a lot about the early farming techniques of the Midwest, or the rates of exchange in Mediterranean trade during the latter decades of the Roman Republic, or court protocol during the Tokogawa Shogunate. If you don't think the period you want to write about is really cool and interesting and has something valid to say to a contemporary reader that, attitude will be apparent in the first paragraph you write and all those glaze-eyed party people will suffer for nothing.

For me it was the 8th century in England and that's because of an illustrated excerpt from Beowulf in a survey Literature textbook I used when I was a freshman in high school. I must still have it around here somewhere because I never get rid of a book. In grade school it was Charles Brady's novel, Sword of Clontarf. At first the interesting things about the period were the swords and battles and traveling around fighting dragons and monsters because that's the kind of things that you think are interesting and cool when you're twelve years old.

As I got older it became the story behind the history. Who did what to whom and why did they do it, and then what happened? Because history is more than knowing the dates of the BIG EVENTS; history is the social and cultural and psychological mechanisms that powered those events, and in a way, something that happened a hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago is still as dynamic as it was when it occurred. So writing historical fiction has to be about those things too.

Then I discovered the Icelandic Sagas. Man, they have it all: bravery and cowardice, ugliness and beauty, largess and venality, poetry and prose, greed and generosity; in other words they're about the real lives of real people who lived in the Viking age. The Sagas made me realize that the so-called Dark Ages were populated by people pretty much the same as we are with similar concerns and psychological pressures and motivations, and they were afraid of similar things and amused by similar things and attracted to the same things that scare, amuse, and attract us.

They had swords but they also had more bugs and no germ theory, medicine that was as much hopeful superstition as helpful technique, no central heat that didn't originate in a wood or charcoal fire, suspect dental hygiene, and, in many cases, a load of parasitic gut worms.

So okay, the Middle Ages, but I knew that I had to narrow things down. Thanks to television and Renaissance Fairs most people think of the Middle Ages as everything between the Fall of Rome and Leonardo da Vinci. That's just too much ground to cover. Back to Beowulf. It was composed in England, but it's about this Geat killing a monster in Denmark—what's that all about? And hey, aren't those ships cool? Beautiful lines—every one of them was a poem realized in pine and oak and hemp.

So okay, the Vikings. But who were the Vikings? Why were they raiding? What made them so successful? And who were they stealing from? What were those societies all about? What made them such ripe targets?

The more I tried to answer those questions the more I found out about the complexity of the period, and the more it seemed to me that Western institutions and sensibilities and what we now think of as Western culture and society were just beginning to coalesce in a way we can recognize between the late 7th and 11th centuries, building on the ruins of Greek and Roman culture. Tribal society was giving way to the regional kingdoms that would eventually become nation states. Religion was widely dominant and powerful in a way it hasn't been since, but heresies were bubbling up internally and Islam was erupting out of the Arabian Peninsula as an external threat. Classical thought was being kept alive in isolated pockets, mostly monastic.

Humans have been recognizably human, as we understand it, for at least the last 30,000 years; and it's only been 2,400 years since Socrates was aggravating the Athenian oligarchs by teaching the youth of Athens to think for themselves. So it's not unreasonable to imagine that the people who lived in the 8th century were capable having the same thoughts and emotions that we have, except that they were constrained by the context of their time, their limited technology, their illiteracy (most of them, anyway), and their superstition.

This is the key issue of all historical fiction: you have to be true to the characters psychologically and emotionally but you also have to be true to the social, economic, political, philosophical, and spiritual context they inhabit. Respect the history: it informs everything. It can be just as much an anachronism to have a woman marry for love and self-actualization in 7th century Italy as it would be for Charlemagne to take up surfing.

It's hard to detach ourselves from our contemporary cultural assumptions and beliefs and motivations when we write about a different time, but it's important to remember that while our essential psychology hasn't changed that much, our accidental social and cultural context and our attitudes about that context change all the time. Projecting contemporary attitudes and sensibilities onto a character in an historical context where those attitudes and sensibilities had not yet evolved is a violation of the fictional universe.

But I still wanted to write about the period in some fresh way. I decided to do that by having a protagonist who had an irreverent attitude about his experiences, a snarky guy who was full of himself and whose observations about the conventions of the Viking story are more irreverent because for him they aren't the conventions of a literary genre, they're the facts of everyday life, and he's got a slightly twisted sense of humor and a sarcastic way of expressing it.

Now that I'd decided on the period, and I knew that the sacking of Lindisfarne was the salient event of the story, I had to create a fictional universe that built toward Lindisfarne and then recovered from it in a way that was believable and as historically accurate in detail as I could contrive.